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The Strange Dynamics of Mixed Gender Spaces

I am sitting in a room packed with excited leaders for a leadership forum organised by the Gugulethu Youth Development Forum.  It’s blisteringly hot and it makes it hard to breathe. Even so, the room is energised as youth from all over the community of Gugulethu, men and women, have gathered to sharpen their leadership skills and build connections with others doing youth empowerment work.

The first group task we’re given is to identify a group of people wearing the same colour t-shirt as yourself and start talking about gender discrimination as we experience it in our daily lives. From that conversation, each group has to build a role play. A lot of themes come up—the ways in which culture and tradition impact how men and women are treated differently, discrimination along gender lines in the workplace, harassment that women face daily as they walk the streets of Cape Town and so on. We sing songs, we laugh and there’s a lot of enthusiasm.

It’s a lot of fun but I pick up on a strange dynamic in the room. There’s a young man across from me eyeing up an attractive young woman leader. They smile at each other. He winks and tilts his head as if to the door and perhaps to some spot outside the meeting room. They both leave soon after.

I know in this case that the young man is a very experienced, well-known youth leader and that the woman is very determined to make her own way up the leadership ladder. It’s nothing new in the spaces in which I have participated in my community. Once during a caucus meeting for my youth party, we had decided as a collective to elect women leaders in the upcoming party elections. But when the day of the election came, the majority of leaders voted into positions were men. Worst part of the situation is that most of this male-dominated leadership were nominated and elected by their partners. Their commitment or capability of carrying out the job was not an issue.

Jolism game—men will often take bets on which woman they can seduce and once they ‘win’, they are considered heroes amongst their peers. It’s a common culture of using women to demotivate, disempower and destruct. It is difficult when you go into an activist meeting space knowing that many of the men in the room are on the prowl. A lot of these young men are in positions of power and influence in their communities and use that to target women, charm them in luxurious hotels where workshops take place, with the end goal as sex. JASS spaces offer up a different approach—women-only spaces. Often, when you mention that in mixed activist circles it sounds like you are saying a dirty word. Some men might take offense and ask, ‘how dare you not include us—is that not another form of discrimination?’ Some women might even tell you that you’re being too ‘radical’ or ‘stubborn’, after all, “what’s the harm in having a few men in our workshops and meetings? They can contribute to the struggle, can’t they?”

“It is vitally important to have mixed spaces as they allow both genders to explore each other’s worlds but being in a women’s spaces allows us freedom as women to express ourselves and share our experiences and some of the struggles that we go through on a daily basis.”

The problem is that so much of this goes unspoken. It is as if there is a dance to which everyone knows the steps and when we find ourselves in mixed spaces it is easy to fall right into the game. This culture cannot be condoned or tolerated.  Young activist needs to be properly supported and trained in political education and practices of activist leadership. As proud young women we have to take action to fight patriarchal traditions that tend to disempower us and we need to take control of the power we possess. We cannot tolerate or accept actions and ways of behaviour that demoralize our dignity and take away our agency.  We are leaders, we are capable of running our organisations and the time has come for us to stand up and speak out.

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